Ancient Art Comes To Syracuse
November 22, 2012 8:00 AM
When local artist Brian Whirledge reached a plateau in his craft, he
sought a teacher who could instruct him further. Unfortunately, teachers
of Byzantine art and music are few and far between, and hundreds of
miles from his home in Syracuse.
But when this art teacher learned of the creativity grants for public
school teachers offered by the Lilly Endowment, he submitted a proposal
to study these ancient arts abroad. He hoped to take his training from
mostly self-taught to securing apprenticeships under master artists in
these fields. His dream became reality when his proposal was approved
and funded by Lilly this past summer.
"I have always been an artist, both musically and visually. When I
encountered the Orthodox Christian church, I was struck with the
unapologetic role of the arts in the church," said Whirledge, a six-year
elementary art teacher in the Fairfield Community School District. "The
walls of Orthodox churches are covered with icons (painted artwork of
Jesus, Mary, Saints) and the services are entirely sung. Singing and
painting were natural avenues for me to serve the church."
Whirledge spent five weeks from May to July in Athens, Greece, receiving
lessons from Ioannis Arvanitis, a master Byzantine chanter. Under his
mentor's guidance, Whirledge also sang with the St. Irene's Church choir
in Athens several times per week during church services.
"Byzantine music requires learning oral traditions through experience.
St. Irene's showcases the best Byzantine chant in the world," said
Whirledge. "A surreal moment was when a Greek friend in Chicago heard me
singing in English on a radio podcast. St. Irene's services are
routinely broadcast on Greek National Radio."
While in Greece, Whirledge also made side trips around Athens, as well
as north to Mount Athos and to Naxos and Aegina, Greek islands in the
"An experience of a lifetime were the days I spent on Mount Athos, which
has been a Christian monastic refuge for over 1,000 years," he said.
"The most moving experience was the feast of St. Paul in Athens. The
service took place on Mars Hill, steps from the Acropolis, where the
Apostle gave his famous speech recorded in Acts 17 and converted the
first Christians in Athens. Church bells were ringing throughout the
whole city. There were thousands of people including dignitaries and
Once back in America on July 4, Whirledge began the second part of his
Lilly-funded trip in Long Island, N.Y.
"I assisted master iconographer Tom Clark on a project at Archangel
Michael Greek Orthodox Church. I helped with borders and gold leaf
gilding around a huge icon of Mary Mother of God, about 16 feet tall and
24 feet wide," said Whirledge, who had never before created an icon
mural of that caliber.
For two weeks, he assisted his mentor for as much as 16 hours a day.
Despite long hours, Whirledge says every minute spent painting the icon
confirmed his passion for this type of art.
"As an Orthodox Christian, icons are essential to our faith. They date
back to the earliest Christians who worshipped in catacombs. While in
Naxos, Greece, I saw iconography dating back to the fourth century,
which is when the church first canonized the Bible as we know it," he
explained. "Being surrounded with images of Christ and the Saints
reminds us of the great act of our salvation."
By working with Clark, Whirledge learned valuable lessons on the
technical process of creating large-scale icons, as well as the hard
work that comes with being a professional iconographer.
"Being able to pursue my passions was amazing," said Whirledge, who has
implemented many musical techniques learned in Greece at his home
parish, St. Mary's Orthodox Church in Goshen, where he serves as the
choir director. He has also recently completed the painting of a large
icon, which will be installed in the church by Christmas.
"The best memory I have from Greece was how pervasive the faith
permeated the culture. Churches were always filled with people, either
going to services or lighting a candle before they went on with their
days," he said. "My goal is to continue improving the music at my own
church and continue studying iconography, eventually painting icons for
For more information about Whirledge's iconography or to contact him, go
to www.brianwhirledge.com <http://www.brianwhirledge.com/
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]